Montgomery County has yet to replace any of the thousands of school plumbing fixtures found to have high levels of lead and might not begin remediation of the problem until the end of the school year, officials said last week.
The county has spent the past five months testing lead levels in every public school water source, including drinking fountains, janitors' sinks and hose bibs. Initial results show that at least some sources in every school have impermissibly high levels and that fixtures, not pipes or the water itself, are the cause of the contamination.
But Richard Hawes, Montgomery schools' director of facility management, said the county will not begin to replace fixtures until it has retested the 27,000 or so water sources in the schools.
"This could reach until the end of this year and even beyond that," said Kate Harrison, schools spokeswoman. "We want to get a sense of the entire situation before we begin a systematic solution to the problem."
In neighboring Prince George's County, school administrators are taking a different approach. They decided to conduct testing in two phases: focusing first on sources of drinking water before turning to other fixtures.
Prince George's has already replaced about 30 drinking fountains that had high lead levels, according to Tony Liberatore, the county schools' chief administrator for support services. He said the county hopes to replace the other problematic fountains within two months.
"Most kids are not going to take a draw of water from a hose bib," Liberatore said. "Our strategy was accessibility to students. Where are they most likely to get some water? Those are the fixtures that I want to know about."
The counties began school testing in March in response to reports of lead contamination in the District and Arlington, where some water samples revealed levels far above the maximum allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency (although later testing showed Arlington was in compliance).
In the meantime, officials in both counties said there is no danger posed to students and staff. Following EPA guidelines, schools flush water from all fixtures every morning to clear out any potential lead contamination, administrators said.
Unlike Prince George's, Montgomery County decided to test all sources -- potable or not -- at the same time. Montgomery sent 26,512 samples to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission for screening and have so far received results for 21,347, according to WSSC spokesman Chuck Brown. Montgomery has also resampled 2,062 sources and received test results for 872, he said.
But Montgomery school officials have publicly disclosed results from only a fraction of the samples analyzed by WSSC: from 68 of the 192 schools in the county, despite earlier plans to report on all schools by the middle of August.
School officials blamed the water and sewage agency for the delay. "There's been a real tie-up at WSSC," Harrison said. "They have not been able to process the samples that have been collected."
Officials at the utility said they were surprised by that characterization.
"We're confused and quite disheartened that they would have any reaction that would identify WSSC as a reason for delaying their remediation plan," said agency spokeswoman Liz Kalinowski.
The agency has provided more than $600,000 worth of free testing to the Montgomery and Prince George's school systems, Kalinowski said. She estimated costs would exceed $1 million before testing is completed.
Lab analysts have been working overtime to process the 50,000 or so samples received by the counties, she said. The agency also bought a new $187,000 machine to allow faster testing of samples.
"If Montgomery County was never happy enough about the progress, they could always have chosen to go to an outside lab and paid to have [the analysis] done elsewhere," Kalinowski said.
Prince George's school officials said they are extremely pleased with WSSC's efforts to test the enormous volume of samples. "They are overloaded, to be honest," said Larry Pauling, director of operations and maintenance for the county's schools.
Liberatore said the Prince George's school system collected 2,608 samples from the areas where drinking water was most accessible to students and staff: fountains in hallways, multipurpose rooms, food preparation areas and gymnasiums. Of those fixtures, 256 had lead levels exceeding the federal standard of 20 parts per billion and were immediately shut off.
The school system then began retesting those 256 sources to determine the source of contamination. Initial test results indicate the cause in almost all cases is the fixtures, which prior to 1986 were routinely soldered with lead. Schools across the country are also finding that fixtures are the primary source of lead, according to Stephen Gerwin, operation support manager at WSSC.
While waiting for the rest of those test results, Prince George's began sampling 15,000 sources of non-drinking water, such as sinks in science laboratories, bathrooms and utility closets. But school officials said they asked WSSC to analyze the 256 sources of drinking water first so they can address that problem as quickly as possible.
Montgomery officials said they will not replace drinking water fixtures until they have information about all water sources in the school. Hawes said the county will test all sources with elevated lead levels three times to ensure that the cause of contamination is the fixtures rather than pipes.
"At this point, we're at no point to make any decisions about the piping infrastructure because we don't have complete information," Harrison said.
Officials in both counties said it was too early to project the cost of remediation, though they said it would be expensive. "It's going to have to be in the millions of dollars," Pauling said.